All Finnish universities providing teaching in languages and linguistics as academic subjects have for some time now been involved in discussions on how to improve their mutual cooperation and division of labour in this area. Started by the Universities Finland organisation (UNIFI) and at least “encouraged” if not directly ordered by the Ministry of Education, similar rounds of discussions have been going on in many other fields, with reports from most of the discussion groups coming out this spring.
The languages and cultures group has all but completed its work and produced a memorandum outlining several ways in which universities could develop their teaching of, and research on, languages and cultures. Societal needs are of course the prime factor determining what kinds of teaching and research should be provided and how it should be organised within each university and between the universities. Since most language departments or units are relatively small by international standards, the need for cooperation between universities is evident. It is also clear that language subjects cannot isolate themselves from other fields of study; this calls for new approaches and new study programmes combining language studies with social sciences, business or law studies – something which has been successfully done in many other countries, especially in the Anglo-American world.
Perhaps the most problematic issue in the discussions has been the division of labour between universities when it comes to reducing the numbers of student intake or even the number of universities providing teaching in some of the less studied languages such as German, French, and Russian. With the numbers of school students opting for these languages on a decline in recent years, universities are now finding it hard to attract enough students capable of taking up the study of these subjects. This in turn leads to small units becoming even smaller and less viable both financially and academically.
The decrease in numbers of students in these subjects is rather paradoxical in view of the fact that the demand in the labour market for people mastering, e.g. German or French, continues to be high in business life, the financial sector, and in the EU context. For German, this should not be surprising as Germany is our largest trading partner, not to mention the long-standing cultural, historical and other relationships between the two countries. Yet there are fewer and fewer students choosing to learn German in Finnish schools. The proximity of Russia and the close trading and other relationships makes the demand for knowledge of Russian among Finns even more obvious. Finns have, however, been rather slow in developing interest in learning Russian. At present English is the sole foreign language of choice for an increasing number of students, which threatens to leave the other languages and knowledge of them in a very marginal position in schools, and as a consequence, in universities and the whole society.
The next stage in the inter-university discussions will no doubt be the most difficult one as universities will be expected to implement at least the most important changes proposed in the memoranda. It may mean having to give up something but also gaining something else in return. No matter what will happen to the proposed changes concerning the study of languages and cultures, it is to be hoped that we hold on to at least our present level and repertoire of knowledge of languages as a nation.